|Aarti Wani, “A Dream and a Nightmare” (30 August 2005); and “Three Films and a Nation” (22 October 2005)
Ketan Mehta‘s Mangal Pandey: The Rising was four years in the making before it was released this August with the hype normal to any mainstream Hindi cinema. Barring a few exceptions, the film received good reviews both here and abroad, and the director has claimed that its success at the box office has been “historic.” Future plans of making films on the lives of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah Jafar (the Mogul king of Delhi) — leaders of the 1857 mutiny — have been announced. The last few years have witnessed a serious increase in the number of films on national figures associated with the history of India’s struggle for independence like Gandhi, Ambedkar, Savarkar, and Bhagat Singh. There has also been purely fictional films like Lagaan (evoking peasant resistance to the British rule) and Gadar (set against the backdrop of the partition of India). Clearly, the sudden mushrooming of such films points to an interest in revaluation and reinterpretation of history, especially that of the freedom struggle. That this has happened in the last few years needs an explanation. No doubt, the calculations of the market, the perception of what will or will not work at the box office, largely determine trends in cinema. But also decisive are the aspirations, dreams, cultural values and concerns of the people who are the consumers of these cinematic products. The last ten years have witnessed major changes in the economic and cultural landscape of the country, which is likely to have influenced cinema in a variety of ways. Reading Mangal Pandey‘s engagement with history is thus useful for the understanding of the more general cultural trends and positions.
Not much is known about Mangal Pandey, a sepoy in the army of the East India Company, save his one act of rebellion: the killing of two British soldiers for which he was hanged. The mutiny started in earnest on 10 May 1857, a month after Mangal’s execution. Turmoil over a rumor about cartridges greased with cow and pig fat was brewing in the barracks. The introduction of new Enfield guns required the use of cartridges which would necessitate that soldiers bite off the greased paper cover on cartridges before use. This was deeply upsetting for the religious sentiments of both Muslim and Hindu soldiers: the pig was unclean for the one and the cow sacred to the other. The mutiny that spread across most of north India quickly became a much wider phenomenon with the feudal powers, the Rajas, lords, taluqedars, and the peasantry joining in. Within a year and a half, the mutiny was quashed, but the East India Company lost as well: it had to hand over the reins of power to the British Crown. Mangal Pandey and the mutiny were to become a cherished memory for those who struggled for Independent India in the twentieth century.
How does cinema deal with history? Obviously, where some documentary material is available, historical veracity can be insisted upon, although that does not ensure good cinema as is the case with Jabbar Patel’s Ambedkar, for which events and incidences were picked up straight from the available biographies and merely strung together. It is also possible to completely falsify history as in the case of 23rd March 1931: Shaheed; despite the availability of Bhagat Singh’s writings as well as those of his comrades, the film not only totally ignored his communist politics but tried to claim him for the Hindu Right. Fortunately, there was The Legend of Bhagat Singh, released simultaneously as Shaheed, which largely succeeded in creating the world of the young revolutionaries with a degree of authenticity. However, when, as in the case of Mangal Pandey, the historical figure is shadowy, the filmmaker perhaps feels free to take license and create the myth he wants. The film Mangal Pandey is an effort to give flesh to what has been merely an outline, to fashion, as it were, the man behind the act. This effort, which has been criticized for taking liberties with the past by some critics, needs to be understood for its politics and its impact.
We have a Mangal Pandey, heroic, brave, hotheaded, impulsive . . . a loyal friend. We see him saving his English officer, William Gordon, in a war in Afghanistan; later, we see him being furious with another English officer for ill treating an Indian waiter and angry with his friend, Gordon, for just standing by. We see his awakening consciousness about injustice that transforms him into a revolutionary. We see him assuming the leadership of a band of followers and plotting a planned all-India uprising. We see all these lead up to his final act of shooting two soldiers of the battalion that are marching towards him. In the film, the mutiny breaks out as an immediate reaction to Mangal’s hanging. The last few years of Mangal’s life come to us by way of flashback, as Gordon’s memory; a sense of guilt causes the extremely sensitive and sensible British officer recall the events leading up to the filmic present. But despite the high drama, songs and dances, and one or two truly successful scenes that capture the private and thoughtful side of Mangal Pandey, the film does not quite work. It neither touches nor stirs the audience; and, alas, neither does it disturb or raise questions. What the film does communicate is no more than a sense of achievement, a complacency of arrival!
Mangal Pandey’s patriotic fervor leaves you unmoved not only because of the nature of its engagement with the past, but also essentially for what it implies for the present. Although not much is known about Mangal Pandey, the mutiny has attracted enough scholarship for us to know that on the whole it was a reaction of feudal, backward-looking forces as they systematically lost ground to a new power that had been successful in consolidating itself over the previous hundred years. The army was the only modern institution with its efficient management and regular, if low, pay. But resentment also grew in the barracks: the British officers ill treated the soldiers, and there were no promotions for the Indians. And yet when the mutiny broke out, it did so over the issue of greased cartridges — an issue of perceived affront to religious and caste sentiments. Mangal Pandey shows the hurt and anger of the soldiers and particularly that of Mangal, who is a high caste Brahmin. But not only is this reaction situated for him within a more general perception of the oppressiveness and injustice of the Company rule, but in the end, as he waits for his execution, he talks of his realization that the preservation of caste purity and taboo is not after all the real issue because under the Company rule all Indians had been equalized by being reduced to the level of the untouchables. Since social justice and equality were crucial concerns of the national struggle for freedom, the film simply coopts Mangal and in effect the mutiny into the Nation and, in a manner of speaking, modernizes the revolt. At one point, Mangal is seen arguing with the emissaries of the feudal kings that he does not see the point of going along with the kings because that will once again restore them to power when in fact it should now rightfully go to the people.
That this interpretation has involved taking liberties with the past is trivially true. It is the thematic and emotional impact of the move that needs to be understood. The vision of a secular, democratic, and liberal India that quickened the struggle for Independence was realized after the freedom was won, but only partially. For example, today, “untouchability” literally may not be practiced in some parts of India, yet on the whole not only is discrimination still a cruel reality but the Dalits are ever more at the receiving end of the most brutal violence at the hands of caste Hindus. Further, this violence has increasingly taken a more programmatic form with the ascendancy of the Hindu Right. Capitalism and liberal democracy were once expected to automatically put an end to these age-old structures of discrimination and oppression. That this has not happened is the hard reality that presently stares us in the face. But Mangal Pandey merely reiterates the “National” message of equality. There is a satisfied air to the image at the end of the film, where the cheeky untouchable, who has all through been goading Mangal into anger against the greased cartridges, is shown to be the first to break the military barrier after Mangal’s execution. The implicit assumption is that all our problems have been addressed in the articulation of the Nation, and what is required today is a simple reminder of that achievement, and the remaining shortcomings will be overcome as well. The plot and the dialogue, which could have reverberated in a way that evokes and questions present atrocities, merely settle for a ritual assertion of established complacencies. Alternatively, an active engagement with the present could have helped to locate the retreat to older certainties in the face of an alien foreign invasion of the past in ways that would help us make sense of our own cultural groping today in the wake of neo-imperialist onslaught.
Ketan Mehta and Farookh Dhondi, the script writer, do make a half-hearted attempt to address present realities. In two brief scenes that follow each other, Gordon expounds upon the modus operandi of the East India Company: the profit motive that drives it to trade in anything and everything and the methods it uses to make profits . . . all in the name of “free trade.” But these two scenes remain isolated occurrences, and no effort is made to weave them into the central thematic of the film. That this is so because there is, at the core, a lack of conviction is obvious from the film’s handling of gender issues. For instance, the film shows Gordon rescuing a girl from the funeral pyre of her husband and then falling in love with her. Sati had been banned by law, and yet the practice continued on the sly for years to come. This interlude adds to the social dimension of the period as it also tries to articulate the National Modern. The problem is in the stance that agonizes over Sati while actively contributing to contemporary gender oppression. Today, even though a stray incident of Sati can still take place, the problem is largely under check. However, the sexual objectification of women, which leads to even greater violence against them, is, arguably, the more real contemporary concern. Mangal Pandey‘s take on Sati could have been appreciated if the film had refrained from indulging in a populist gimmick like the inclusion of an obligatory “item number” in mainstream Hindi cinema: a half naked woman, otherwise unconnected with the narrative, dancing provocatively in front of a drunk, appreciative all-male audience. Taking a progressive position on an obsolete feudal practice like Sati while participating in contemporary modes of oppression is worse than hypocrisy. That the film lacks conviction in its criticism of commodification, implicit in Gordon’s speech, is clear from its willingness to use the cheapest trick in the book to attract audiences.
Trapped in a stale homage to old pieties without a strong, consistent critique of the new imperialism of capital, Mangal Pandey is left with a diffuse structure that seems to lack a center. Things are not helped much by the song and dance sequences that constantly break the flow of action. There is a song for holi, a song of the nautch girls, the “item number,” a song in the marketplace, a general patriotic song, and a song in the mosque (a necessary nod to “National integration”). In the end, the question that remains is, why this Mangal Pandey? It is safe to guess that, as global capital rushes in, the resultant anxiety is driving cinema to once again look at the earlier narratives of resistance. In this context, a comparison with Lagaan would help. Directed by Ashuthosh Gowarikar, Lagaan, a true hit that even made a bid for the Oscar, told a story of a band of farmers that take on the British over a match of cricket. The gradual formation of the team as one villager after another, each with his characteristic behavioral quirk, joins in; the passion of the team leader Bhuvan, (played, once again, by the star actor of Mangal Pandey, Amir Khan); and the steadily building crescendo of action and feeling made Lagaan a much more successful film. And yet, here too, its politics stood revealed in the way it portrayed the British. Like the “true gentlemen” they were, the British are seen as sportive, fair, and honorable men. They cheer, clap, and appreciate the Indian team and, on losing, leave the region to the more benevolent rule of the Indian King. The atrocities of the British rule are thus reduced to the sadism of one man, Captain Russell, who wants to impose an arbitrary tax (lagaan). And finally the British authorities, acting like future bosses of multinational corporations, actually transfer Captain Russell for non-performance, i.e. for losing to a team of poor illiterate farmers! Also significant is the filmmaker’s choice of a fictitious match of cricket as a tool of resistance, avoiding the available histories of peasant struggles. A game, any game for that matter, depends upon the value of sportiveness according to which the attitude of “may the best player win” is pivotal. In taking up the challenge of cricket, Bhuvan and his team learn the rules of a game played by the English. Can it be said that the film appealed to Indians to play the game and win or lose on merit? The new imperialism, like the old, is no doubt upsetting, but the way to deal with it is to play along with it — that seems to be the unconscious message of a film that has accepted the ideology of globalization with its claims of a truly free market where all the players have a level playing field and all you have to do is give your best shot. Similarly, even though Mangal Pandey takes a swipe at the so-called free market, its uncertain understanding of it, along with its lack of courage to envision an alternative world, has resulted in a film that is just another uncritical paean to past achievement. In short, the film industry continues to glorify the past, unable to make sense of our changing reality. A film that intelligently confronts India today, as it really is, is yet to be made.
Aarti Wani is a lecturer in English at Symbiosis College of Arts, Commerce, & Computer Science, Pune. A member of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Association), Wani is involved in many youth-, media-, and culture-related activities and projects in the city.